The Sacramento Kings have under-performed for years, winning just 33 games last season despite higher expectations internally. Dating back to last offseason, the Kings were in turmoil with former coach George Karl and All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins at odds.
The organization tried to push through, hoping fences would be mended along the way, but the team stumbled on the floor and eventually Karl was the casualty. The team has since hired head coach Dave Joerger, who was with the Memphis Grizzlies until this summer.
Joerger is tasked with getting Cousins to engage fully as the Kings’ best player, building a winner with a franchise that hasn’t made the postseason since 2006. The team has a talented roster – at least offensively – but it remains to be seen if Joerger can get his squad to produce on both sides of the court.
Basketball Insiders previews the Sacramento Kings’ 2016-17 season.
FIVE GUYS THINK
We have spent the better part of the past few years laughing at the instability of the Kings, so many of the moves they made this past summer have gone unnoticed. I mean, their rotation is likely to consist of a few tough veterans in Arron Afflalo, Matt Barnes and Kosta Koufos, some youngsters in Malachi Richardson, Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere and some players whom we already know can play in DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and the newly acquired Ty Lawson. The Kings aren’t going to supplant either the Golden State Warriors or Los Angeles Clippers in the division, but, at least on paper, they appear to be a better team this season.
Traditionally, players who bring gold medals home enjoy productive seasons. We’ll see in short order whether Cousins bucks the trend. Either way, I don’t think the Kings are making the playoffs this season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they improved upon last season’s 33 wins.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Moke Hamilton
Generally speaking, the Kings are no less confusing now than they were a year ago, which means we’re probably in for one more year of the disgruntled version of DeMarcus Cousins. It’s a shame, too, because the happy version of Cousins was such a joy to watch this past summer as a member of Team USA. He’ll be trading in the likes of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving for Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson, two free agent signings that capped off a pretty baffling offseason for the Kings. Getting Skal Labissiere as late as they did in the draft was a steal, except he’ll never see the floor on a team collecting centers like Pokemon. They’ve got a patchwork roster with plenty of talent, but nobody has any idea how it’s all going to come together. New head coach Dave Joerger should help put the pieces together, but even a good chef can only do so much with odd ingredients.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Joel Brigham
It seems like forever since the Kings were annually competing for a trip to the NBA Finals in the early 2000s. But over the past decade, the team has had a rather tumultuous ride. Coaching changes, failed rebuilding projects, relocation threats and constant front-office shuffling led to the Kings seemingly hitting rock bottom on more than a few occasions. The 2016-17 team figures to have its own set of drama to conquer with point guard Darren Collison’s offseason incident looming and the future of All-Star DeMarcus Cousins with the organization a daily discussion. Still, there is enough talent here to make some improvement, but don’t expect a huge leap in the standings.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Lang Greene
In some ways, I’m still processing the Kings’ offseason. I didn’t love any of their moves and I didn’t necessarily hate any of them either. A big part of this is the unstable front office situation, which has led to multiple coach hires and fires over the last few seasons and the lack of direction. Is this team trying to win now, or is it more concerned about acquiring young talent for the future? The Kings are bringing in several young players this season, including Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere, Malachi Richardson and Isaiah Cousins. But they also brought in veteran players like Matt Barnes, Arron Afflalo, Garrett Temple, Ty Lawson and Anthony Tolliver. Perhaps trying to become as competitive as possible now is geared toward keeping DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento long-term, but this group of players isn’t likely to make much noise in the Western Conference. Being split between competing now to appease a star player and bringing in young talent to prepare for his possible departure is probably not a recipe for major success, so I’m just not a huge fan of Sacramento’s offseason. Having said all of that, I am a fan of the Dave Joerger hire and am cautiously optimistic that he can establish an identity for this team. If things go well, this team could potentially compete for the third seed in the Pacific Division (but that doesn’t seem likely).
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
Garrett Temple talked to Basketball Insiders in July about Sacramento’s offseason moves and explained that the Kings entered the summer badly wanting to change the culture around the organization. That’s why they signed veterans like Temple, Arron Afflalo, Matt Barnes, Anthony Tolliver and Ty Lawson and hired head coach Dave Joerger (who had a successful stint with the Memphis Grizzlies). I don’t think Sacramento will make the playoffs this year, but I do expect the team to beat last year’s 33 wins. Joerger and the incoming veterans should do well alongside the team’s returning players to help set the foundation for the future. There are still question marks surrounding the team though, especially when it comes to Rudy Gay’s future with the Kings and whether DeMarcus Cousins is happy with the franchise’s direction.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: DeMarcus Cousins
Cousins is arguably the best scoring center in the NBA. Last season, he led the Kings with 26.9 points per game. He is powerful in the post and near the basket, but he also has range that extends all the way out to the three-point line – taking 210 attempts last year and converting 33.3 percent. Cousins isn’t necessarily the most efficient scorer (shooting 45.1 percent from the field), but he’s a high-volume powerhouse who is very tough for opposing big men to guard.
Top Defensive Player: Willie Cauley-Stein
Now a sophomore, Cauley-Stein has tremendous potential as an NBA defender. A true seven-footer, Cauley-Stein is mobile and athletic and may get the opportunity to start alongside Cousins. Whether Cauley-Stein does so at center or power forward isn’t necessarily significant. He’d likely draw the assignment on the opponent’s strongest offensive player night after night. Cauley-Stein is agile and long enough to bother smaller, quicker players on the perimeter. The Kings have not been a strong defensive club in recent years, but Cauley-Stein could be an important part of a culture change.
Top Playmaker: Darren Collison
Last season, Collison came off the bench behind one of the NBA’s top assist men in Rajon Rondo. With Rondo off to the Chicago Bulls, Collison projects to be a high-minute starter this season for the Kings. Two years ago, Collison started 45 games in Sacramento, averaging 5.6 assists per game. While he’s not as dynamic a playmaker as Rondo, Collison will have the ball in his hands a lot this season and will look to set up his teammates. The Kings have invited Ty Lawson to camp. Should he make the team, Lawson is more of a true point guard than Collison. Just two seasons ago (2014-15), Lawson averaged 9.6 assists a game for the Denver Nuggets. Outside of Lawson, it’s unclear if any other players on the roster can play the point behind Collison.
Top Clutch Player: Rudy Gay, perhaps?
The Kings went into last season with higher expectations, but really struggled to close out games. As a team, Sacramento wasn’t especially clutch. Defensively, they gave up 109.1 points a game. They played at a fast pace (scoring 106.6 points nightly), but down the stretch, they rarely seemed to get important stops. Whatever clutch offense they got seemed overshadowed by their struggles on the other end. Rudy Gay was often the primary option in the final minutes of games and while he had some success, the team rarely did. The Kings really need Cousins to emerge as that guy this season, and they need to get the corresponding stops to get the wins.
The Unheralded Player: Omri Casspi
A number of players could fit this bill, from newcomers Arron Afflalo and Anthony Tolliver to under-utilized players like Kosta Koufos and Ben McLemore. However, Casspi has emerged as an ideal small-ball stretch four, a mobile 6’9 forward who shoots the three. Last year, Casspi hit 40.9 percent of his shots from behind the arc. His effective field goal percentage was 57.1.
Top New Addition: Arron Afflalo
Afflalo is a solid two-way guard, who can also play some small forward. The Kings need to play a more mature level of basketball to get wins, and Afflalo fits that well as an experienced veteran. He should be a great locker room presence for the Kings, just as he was during his successful stint with the Orlando Magic. Last season, Afflalo shot 38.2 percent from behind the arc with the New York Knicks. He’s also a capable scorer from the post.
– Eric Pincus
WHO WE LIKE
1. DeMarcus Cousins
From a pure talent standpoint, Cousins is among the most talented players in the league – big or small. He played an important part in Team USA earning a gold medal in Rio this summer. If he can improve as a leader and contain his emotions on the court, Cousins may climb into the “Most Valuable Player” discussion. However, to date, he hasn’t been able to take the Kings to the playoffs. Cousins isn’t far from a “Who We Don’t Like” list, to be honest. His career arc is still very much up in the air.
2. Dave Joerger
Coach Joerger was successful in Memphis when the Grizzlies were healthy. The team was among the best in the league defensively, advancing to the second round in 2015 before falling to the Golden State Warriors in six games. Sacramento is desperate for leadership, and Joerger has the opportunity to help re-brand the Kings. His first and primary job will be reaching Cousins.
3. Willie Cauley-Stein
Cauley-Stein can’t make Sacramento a defensive-minded team by himself, but he represents the path the Kings need to walk if they want to truly become a force in the Western Conference. Dave Joerger will try to maximize Cauley-Stein’s potential and get the team’s other significant contributors to step up on the defensive end alongside the second-year big man.
4. Omri Casspi
Casspi is scrappy, plays hard and can hit the three. As is the case with Cauley-Stein, the team is not going to change its culture because of a couple of role players. It has to start from the top – and that’s Cousins.
– Eric Pincus
SALARY CAP 101
The Kings dropped under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to sign Arron Afflalo, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple and Matt Barnes. The team is over the cap, but still has it’s $2.9 million Room Exception. The team has 14 guaranteed players, with one spot open for Ty Lawson, Lamar Patterson and Isaiah Cousins to fight over. Lawson’s $1.3 million is a non-guaranteed summer contract, meaning he doesn’t even have salary protection if injured.
Next summer, Sacramento could have significant spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap. The second years on Afflalo and Tolliver’s contracts (a combined $20.5 million) are guaranteed for just $1.5 million and $2 million, respectively. Rudy Gay ($12.3 million) and Barnes ($6.4 million) also have player options. Without all four, the Kings could reach $55 million under the cap – among the most in the league. That number assumes Sacramento picks up Willie Cauley-Stein’s rookie-scale option before November. The team also has until the end of October to give Ben McLemore an extension, otherwise he’ll be a restricted free agent if the Kings extend a qualifying offer in July.
– Eric Pincus
Cousins is a match-up nightmare for most teams. Gay is a high-volume scoring forward. Veterans like Barnes, Collison, Tolliver, Koufos, Casspi and Afflalo should help the Kings play a more mature brand of basketball. Lawson is a wildcard; if he makes the squad, he could end up being the starting point guard or a solid reserve behind Collison. Cauley-Stein isn’t much of an offensive threat, but he’s an important defensive component on a team that has struggled on that front. The new start under Joerger, with the team moving to the new Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, should help the team put their unimpressive past behind them. The Kings have an opportunity to make noise in the Western Conference, but they’re going to need to finally deliver on the court after years of underwhelming play.
– Eric Pincus
Sacramento has struggled for leadership. In previous season, opponents just needed to stay close in games because they knew the Kings would eventually beat themselves. The biggest issue has been on the defensive side of the ball, but Sacramento can be disjointed offensively as well. Cousins’ talent is unquestionable, but he still has to prove he can be the best player on a good NBA team. The team’s roster is not particularly well balanced, loaded with forwards and centers but weak at guard. McLemore has yet to show he’s a consistent impact player. Collison is a good, but not necessarily a great point guard. The team needs Afflalo and possibly Lawson to make an impact in the backcourt.
– Eric Pincus
THE BURNING QUESTION
How long will the Kings’ marriage with Cousins last?
Cousins is under contract through the 2017-18 season. As things are, given his bumpy history with the club, the odds are reasonably high that the All-Star will leave as a free agent in July of 2018. If Joerger can help turn the team into a winner, the narrative could change significantly. If not, the Kings need to at least explore moving Cousins lest they lose him for nothing. Typically, the closer a star player gets to the end of his contract, the harder he can be to move for value. Teams are often reluctant to give up a lot for a player who can walk away from them after one rental season. This upcoming February may be the best time to move Cousins, if the Kings prove to be mediocre once again. The team has not looked to move Cousins this offseason, preferring to see what happens with Joerger and the team’s new players. The franchise clearly hopes for enough on-court success to engage Cousins for the long-term, but that’s easier said than done.
– Eric Pincus
NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener
Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.
“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”
That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.
While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.
Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.
While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.
Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).
While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.
Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.
Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).
“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”
Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.
Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.
“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.
For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.
“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”
Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.
The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.
Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics
Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.
Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.
Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.
In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.
Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.
“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.
“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”
The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.
“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.
“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”
Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.
“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”
The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.
“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”
Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.
“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.
“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”
Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.
“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.
“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”
While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.
“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.
“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”
Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.
Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.
Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.
“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.
“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”
You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.
Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.
“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?
“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”
Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.
“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”
NBA AM: Dwight Howard’s Quest For Redemption Begins
Dwight Howard says he has been unfairly blamed for previous shortcomings. In Charlotte, he gets a chance to prove it.
Prior to the start of training camp for the Charlotte Hornets, newly-acquired center Dwight Howard made an appearance at a charitable event for the Boys and Girls Club at a local elementary school. At that event, Howard laid out the stakes for his first season in Charlotte.
“This [is an] opportunity for myself to really get back everything that I would say has been taken away,” said Howard, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.
In an August interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Howard seemed to imply that the primary thing that had been taken from him was a major role in the offense of teams he’s played with since he left Orlando, noting that his shot attempts had decreased from double digits to about six per game in Atlanta.
“I think it’s all opportunity, the system,” Howard told Wojnarowski. “I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”
Earlier this week, Hornets GM Rich Cho told NBA.com that Charlotte was the right place to give Howard that opportunity because of his relationship with coach Steve Clifford, who coached Howard as an assistant at two previous stops.
“With the relationship that Cliff has with Dwight, I know ‘Cliff is going to get the best out of him like he has done with past players,” said Cho. The Charlotte GM also went into detail about how the trade for Howard fit the goals the organization set for the offseason.
“When we entered the offseason, there were a number of things we wanted to accomplish,” said Cho. “One was, we wanted to get a rim protector and some shot blocking. Two, we wanted to add some more physicality. And three, we wanted to add a lot more depth overall and improve our bench play.
“So with Dwight, I think we’ve added all those things. He’s a great rim protector and shot blocker. He’s averaged a double-double every year he’s been in the league. It adds a lot of physicality with him going to the starting lineup and moving Cody [Zeller] into a backup role. It also increases our overall depth.”
Controversy has followed Howard after every NBA stop, and his brief stint with the Hawks was no different. ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on a podcast that he was told that a former teammate of Howard celebrated when informed he had been traded to Charlotte. If Lowe’s story is true, it only shows how divided and factional Atlanta’s locker room was last season. Several of Howard’s younger Hawks teammates took to Twitter to refute Lowe’s account, and Howard was voted Best Teammate by Hawks players in the NBA Players Association’s 2017 Players Voice Awards.
— NBPA (@TheNBPA) August 18, 2017
With so many contradictory accounts, it’s understandable why Howard sees a fresh start with the Hornets as an opportunity to counter the narratives that have followed him from stop to stop.
“Throughout all the mess that has happened the last couple of years, this is a great opportunity for me to prove to myself that I know exactly who I am — to just shut people’s mouths,” Howard told Wojnarowski.
With that goal in mind, Howard’s quest for redemption got off to a rocky start in Detroit in Wednesday’s season-opening loss to the Pistons. Howard came close to the double-digit shot attempts he craves, hitting five of nine for 10 points and 15 rebounds. Only Kemba Walker (13) and Jeremy Lamb (10) shot the ball more for Charlotte. But Detroit’s Tobias Harris erupted for 27 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists to help the Pistons open the new Little Caesars Arena with a win.
“We’re going to get it right,” Howard said after the loss. “We’ve just got to stay together, stay focused and get Game 2.”
Awaiting the Hornets in that second game for tonight’s home opener are the same Atlanta Hawks that cut him loose after just one season. In addition to trading Howard, Atlanta allowed All-Star forward Paul Millsap to depart to the Denver Nuggets as a free agent. The Hawks appear to be rebuilding, but Atlanta didn’t look like a team aiming for lottery balls in Dallas Wednesday as the team won its season opener. Point guard Dennis Schroder led the team with 28 points and seven assists while rookie John Collins scored 14 with five rebounds off the bench — the highest-scoring debut by a Hawks rookie since Rumeal Robinson in 1990 — including several thunderous dunks.
In the preseason, Collins addressed the low external expectations for the young Hawks.
“It’s on us to do what we need to do to get these wins,” said Collins. “The chemistry’s great. I’m not really too worried about it.”
While chemistry could help the young Hawks exceed expectations, it will play a key role in Howard’s quest to prove that he was not the root of all the ailments of his past teams. Zeller had a breakout season for the Hornets before the Howard trade moved him to the bench. With Cho declaring that Howard addressed most of the team’s offseason goals, Charlotte should be much closer to a finished product than the retooling Hawks.
Howard is in the best possible position to succeed, with a coach that believes in him and the central offensive role he says he’s been denied in the past. Howard has stated his case, and now it’s up to him to prove it on the court.